The Power of Visionary Leadership

United States Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus presented the 2012 Deil S. Wright Lecture, “Leadership in Service,” on November 1, 2012. The 75th leader of America’s Navy and Marine Corps, Secretary Mabus is responsible for an annual budget of $160 billion and a workforce of approximately 900,000 people.

Secretary Mabus was clear that one of the most critical components of strong leadership in today’s world is vision. He said, “Vision is about conceiving what could be, while being informed by what has already been.”

A fourth-generation Mississippian, Secretary Mabus grew up in the small town of Ackerman. He received a bachelor’s degree from the University of Mississippi, a master’s degree from Johns Hopkins University, and a law degree from Harvard Law School. His military experience included a two-year tour in the Navy as a lieutenant junior grade aboard the cruiser USS Little Rock. He served as Governor of Mississippi from 1988 to 1992 and as US Ambassador to Saudi Arabia from 1994 to 1996.

Secretary Mabus emphasized the difference that one person’s leadership can make by providing an example that struck close to home for the audience. He pointed out that in 1960 North Carolina and Mississippi were almost identical in terms of a number of economic and socioeconomic conditions.

“That year,” he continued, “you elected Terry Sanford as your governor, and Mississippi elected Ross Barnett. Barnett stood in the schoolhouse door at Ole Miss to keep some from getting in. Terry Sanford opened those doors wide to let more people in.”

Mabus explained that, regardless of political party, North Carolina has since elected a string of good governors. The Tar Heel state now leads in many important economic and socioeconomic categories, while Mississippi continues to trail.

“That’s the difference of one person,” he said. “That’s the difference public service can make.”

Secretary Mabus’ father, who passed away in 1986, inspired him through his management of a local agribusiness. In the last year of his life, his father did not cut down a single tree he had planted. He hoped they would provide for his son, the grandchildren he would never get to meet, and future generations of the family.

Public service leaders, Mabus asserted, maintain visionary ideas similar to those held by his father. “Through visionary leadership,” said Mabus, “you uphold a public trust for the benefit of future generations we will never know.”

There is tremendous power in visionary leadership for public sector organizations. Vision helps an organization harness its energy, understand how everything is connected, and supports individuals as they find their “best fit” in accomplishing a mission. As alumni and students continue to develop as leaders, incorporating the advice of Secretary Mabus to be visionary in our efforts is essential to leaving a lasting and celebrated public service legacy.

This article was written by Brian A. Farkas, Carolina MPA Class of 2013, and originally appeared in the Winter 2013 issue of Impact, the newsletter for Carolina MPA alumni. If you have questions or comments regarding Impact, contact Jean Coble at coble@sog.unc.edu.